Engines roar as we accelerate down the gravel runway. To my left, small villages and brick works stretch to the horizon, to my right rows of green military helicopters stand ready for action. Dust rises in a plume behind us as the plane sways, groans and lifts cautiously from the gravel airstrip below.
A touch of nostalgia washes over me as this is my 27th and final flight in the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] plane returning to Kabul after six and half months in Afghanistan. I'm returning from a short but very busy visit to the MSF maternity hospital in the troubled region of Khost, right at the frontier with Pakistan – so close, in fact, that the preferred local currency is the Pakistani Rupee.
High walls and heightened security measures limit our contact with the outside world. Using a truck mirror on a pole, a guard searches underneath each vehicle that enters the compound for explosives. Accommodation occupies a series of comfortable converted shipping containers at one end of the compound; a simple mosque lies beyond. The hospital buildings hug the far side of the compound with a large area of bare ground in between.
I'm struck by the normality of life for the people, despite regular bomb blasts and attacks. As I work late into the night in the sterilisation room to repair a leaking autoclave, I'm quizzed by the duty staff member who speaks surprisingly good English. He's shocked and amazed that I've been to Helmand in the south and Kunduz in the north, places that to him are off limits, too dangerous.
He goes on to tell me that Khost, Jalalabad and surrounding provinces are very safe. I smile to myself at the irony of it all. Khost has the reputation of being one of the most conservative and dangerous regions in the country, yet to a local, despite the regular explosions and automatic weapon fire, this place is home and home is always where we feel the safest.
I reflect on this as we soar over barren plateaus and snowy peaks, realising how much at home I've come to feel in this country over the 6.5 months I've been here. The familiarity of the congested roundabouts, the call to prayer, the masked soldiers manning their aptly signposted "Ring of Steel" checkpoints, and the ever-present jingle of the ice cream sellers, back on the streets almost before the winter snows have melted.
The radio calls from the ICRC van to base, our guards asking for the gates to be opened, and of course the endless greetings that I've finally begun to grasp. Six months of practice just to say hello... this really is the land of a thousand greetings.